Monday, October 31, 2005

The Bat Test

This is a student poem from a few years ago – the first draft of a poem that went on to become much, much better – bright and sensual and well-realized.

First Kiss

The surf rushes forward,
falling with fury into a fluid fusion.
Waves whirl and intertwine.
Surges of synergic seduction plunge deeper
as they rise and tumble.
Ripples diminish, and bliss licks the shore.
The ocean’s caress recedes
and I, standing barefoot in the sand

And my response, or the relevant part for this blog entry:

You’ve already let us know that the poem is going to be about a romantic, breathtaking moment, by titling it “First Kiss.” So you don’t need to explain that.

You also don’t need to explain to the reader that surf is a crashing, exciting phenomenon. So ANYTHING you say about the waves will carry that. Which means that’s the one thing you DON’T want to say, because you’re saying it already. Adding anything about rushing, or fury, is going to be redundant, and will feel like overkill.

Richard Hugo, in The Triggering Town, talks about "writing off the subject." I'd add another, similar suggestion: "Writing away from the subject."

Not only do you not need to say what you've already said, you don't need to say what you've already suggested. It’s close to impossible to write total non sequiturs. If something pops into your head, no matter how disconnected it may seem from what went before, it's connected because your head is the one it popped into.

So the connections are there. They can’t help but be. And that means you need to trust us as readers to make those connections. We will make them...sometimes even better than you, the poet, will, because we expect them to be there. If we know a poem is called "First Kiss," we'll connect anything that follows to the experience of a first kiss (whatever our experience of a first kiss is). So write away from it. Don't describe a first kiss. Describe something else.

Here's a stanza from a poem called “Summer Haiku” by Alicia Ostriker. You can find the whole poem at The stanza reads

A mother bat soars
Crazily across the moon,
Mouth full of insects.

Now, instead of “Summer Haiku,” let’s call the poem


That night, a bat soared
Crazily across the moon,
Mouth full of insects.

Once we see the title "First Kiss," we're going to relate whatever comes after to the idea of a first kiss. We may read this and think -- this is a kiss she shouldn't have gotten into. This is a dangerous first kiss -- irresistible because of its crazy danger, because of the moonlight...but dangerous.

Let’s put the same stanza under another title from another student poem:


A bat soars
Crazily across the moon,
her mouth full of insects.

Uh oh. We're in the present tense now -- not looking back at the first kiss from a distance of time, but right there with the guy as his girl friend storms away, and his mind is full of doubts. Why is he looking at the sky, and not at her? Maybe because of the doubts. He wants to shut her out, at least for the moment. But he can't shut her out -- anything he sees is going to be relevant. And he sees a bat flying crazily across the moon -- the symbol of romantic love being crossed by the symbol of vampirism -- the creature who will first appear sexual and enticing, but will then suck the blood and the soul out of you. And in the speaker's mind -- because there's no way he could actually know this -- the bat is a woman.

Now let's stick it under a couple of other titles, drawn from (and without reading the poems, just grabbing the titles).


A mother bat soars
Crazily across the moon,
mouth full of insects.

He's visiting the dog's grave at night. He must be very lonely. And the solitary bat makes him feel even lonelier.'s a mother bat. Her mouth is full of insects for her babies. Even this world, bereft of a beloved dog, is full of life and nurturing in the strangest places...maybe? We have to read on.


A mother bat soars
Crazily across the moon,
mouth full of insects.

You make the interpretation.

Or how about this? Ezra Pound's famous two-line poem.


The apparition of these faces in the crowd,
Bats flying crazily across the moon.

So that's the bat test. What happens to your poem if you stick the bat stanza into it? Does it derail the poem, or is it still strangely on track? If it derails the poem, maybe you're too locked into literal meaning. If it doesn't, then think about where else you can go.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

A meme for today

Fortunately, I didn't have to look it up, because the person who gave me this meme also supplied me with the definition of a meme, and it's not like mê mê , as in my wonderful French-Canadian mother-in-law. This is pronounced meem, and it means "an idea, behavior, style, or usage that spreads from person to person within a culture." In this case, the culture is the blog culture, and here's the meme, gotten from writers Jerilyn Dufresne and Anne Frasier.

1. Take the first five novels from your bookshelf.
2. Book 1 -- first sentence.
3. Book 2 -- last sentence on page 50.
4. Book 3 -- second sentence on page 100.
5. Book 4 -- next to the last sentence on page 150.
6. Book 5 -- final sentence of the book.
7. Make the five sentences into a paragraph.
8. Feel free to "cheat" to make it a better paragraph.
9. Name your sources.
10.Post to your blog.

And here's my pargraph.

I found Elizabeth waiting at the door of my office, standing at a respectful distance and watching as two men sat together in the evening and pored over maps and charts and tables. They looked up, and I could tell they considered me some kind of strange wild animal, as I laid on my American accent and my all-round toughness with a heavy hand. I knew I’d have to send the girl away. It troubled me in some mysterious way, yet also made me happy.

And my sources:

Ross MacDonald, The Ivory Grin.
Jessica Richards (me), Mistress of the Western Wind.
Wilfrid Sheed, Transatlantic Blues
George McNeill. The Plantation (an old friend I’ve sadly lost touch with).
D. M. Thomas, The White Hotel.

Monday, October 24, 2005

National Book Award Nominees

The Poetry Portraits page of my website currently features the five National Book Award finalists for poetry: John Ashbery, Vern Rutsala, W. S. Merwin, Frank Bidart, Brendan Galvin.

Monday, October 17, 2005


With all the rain last week, the pool level was up over its banks. Which was good news for Big George and the rest of the fish -- they could come up on shore and start nibbling at the grass.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

I got interrupted in the middle of my post on this.

Daniel's Clamor Contender will be up through the end of October, which means that this year we'll be staying open through the end of the month, so that people can get a chance to see it and participate in it. (If the weather is really cold and rainy and awful on a weekend day, we probably won't open).

For more information, check out Daniel's Clamor Contender wegsite at

and here are a couple more images.

Monday, October 03, 2005

Clamor Contender

Daniel Helmstetter's Clamor Contender installation went up this weekend, to enthusiastic participation. Here are a few pictures: